When Dino Babers first arrived as head coach of the Syracuse Orange football team, he preached “belief without evidence” to earn faith from fans early. Despite losses piling up in years one and two, there were glimmers of what could be in the form of upsets against ranked Virginia Tech and Clemson. The payoff to those building seasons was year three — a 10-3 campaign that brought SU football back onto the national stage and into the top 25.
That was the evidence to justify the belief. The idea was we’d keep building from that point. And yet, we haven’t. And that’s where the issues are coming from for Syracuse fans right now. They have evidence this works, but with SU cruising toward a third losing season in four years, they’re starting to lack belief that Babers can turn the Orange into a consistent winner.
There are reasons it’s a fair concern. Babers and staff have put in a truly poor coaching job this season, failing to make adjustments, managing games poorly and waiting too long to bench players who are less than effective. The team has talent, but beyond the starters, it’s young and inexperienced (and even among those starters, it’s questionable in spots). SU’s improved what’s on the roster, but continues to recruit closer to a top-50 level than top-40. So when depth becomes a barometer of your season — usually the case when injuries arise — you’re less able to adapt than one with more talent on the roster.
Those factors existing can’t erase last season. It was still an incredibly fun year where Syracuse utilized a down ACC and the resulting mild schedule to its advantage to over-perform relative to talent while injuries were almost a non-issue. And anyone who can win 10 games with the Orange obviously knows what they’re doing to some extent.
However, the fact that last season happened does raise the bar on what fans expect going forward, because Dino’s proven that level of success is possible. Never mind how much the schedule may have helped (it did). This year’s schedule was similar, and with a fairly experience team save a few spots, a full step back should’ve meant losing some close ones and coming in around 6-6.
But that’s not what’s happened. And honestly, if the team was losing every game by a touchdown, you’d be able to sell that to fans. Unfortunately, it’s not what has occurred at all. Even throwing out the one-sided losses to more talented Clemson and Florida State, Syracuse has been run off the field by Maryland and Boston College (!!!). Suddenly, it’s harder to envision coming out of this dip so easily.
In that regard, this season’s been a masterclass in how to squander good faith and unequivocal belief. As mentioned before, expectations were overblown for this season, and no one gets a pass there. When looking at what’s actually happened on the field, though, the blame falls squarely on Babers, his staff and the players. They’ve provided evidence before, and now need to restore some faith. That may not happen this year, but there’s going to be a demand to do so next year. So how does that occur?
Reevaluating coaches. Dino’s brought the “family band” (as I’ve usually called it) with him from Eastern Illinois to Bowling Green to Syracuse, with just a few tweaks here and there. That’s fine, when it works. But results this year show that changes must be made this offseason. Offensive line coach Mike Cavanaugh — decidedly not a member of said band — seems as good as gone. Offensive coordinator Mike Lynch has been decidedly less aggressive or inventive without Sean Lewis. Is that a product of a bad line, or was Lewis the mastermind?
Defensively, something’s clearly amiss as well. McKinley Williams’s absence factors in run-stopping struggles, but not to the record extent we saw vs. BC. Yesterday’s gameplan looked as if they didn’t know the Eagles would run the ball down their throats. Brian Ward can be questioned, as can the position coaches. The fact that the linebackers have played this poorly and little has changed around who’s on the field is startling. The secondary’s regression (save for Andre Cisco and most times, Ifeatu Melifonwu) has been insane.
Speaking of, we’ll likely see some younger players on the field now that there are just three regular season games left. Redshirt rules allow for players to participate in up to four games, and we already saw Dino willing to rip the bandaid off with Jawhar Jordan on Saturday. Given the aforementioned issues at certain positions, it seems like a no-brainer to give younger players a shot. It can’t be worse in some respects. And it helps develop experienced depth.
Perhaps that also fixes the discipline issues, which have plagued the Orange for over a decade, but become more obvious and disturbing when you’re losing. If it doesn’t, that’s once again on the coaches.
This is not me saying Dino should be fired, or even on the hot seat at this very moment. As mentioned, last season happened, and it’s disingenuous to talk about removing him right now given that fact. But that doesn’t excuse him from being critiqued for what’s occurred this season, and then evaluating how he needs to adjust going forward.
To date, Babers’s head coaching career has been characterized by a steadfast adherence to certain practices, systems and (for the most part) assistants. He has a way of doing things that’s worked, and because it has, there’s little question about it continuing the same way. The mark of a good leader, though, is knowing what you don’t know and being able to adjust. Given the results of this season — especially if combined with the first two years — it’s clear that the way he’s always done things isn’t setting up Syracuse for the needed amount of success.
He hasn’t been here — the other side of the breakout season — before, by his own admission. So acknowledging that inexperience and the role it may have played in how 2019 is shaking out, there are changes to be made for 2020. If he wants to skip the wait and implement them after the coming bye week, sure that works too. Just being realistic, we’re looking ahead at 2020 as the year by which this regime’s ability to adapt and move forward with consistency is judged.
Can he reestablish wide-scale belief? Can he provide more evidence for an increasingly what-have-you-done-for-me-lately fan psyche? He has at least a full year to answer those questions. It may just require more patience than we’d realized.